In honor of director Todd Haynes’ new Bob Dylan-approved biopic, I’m Not There, a host of talented musicians, young and old, contributed to the movie’s soundtrack of 33 Dylan songs. And a handful of those artists gathered last night at New York City’s Beacon Theatre to pay homage to the greatest songwriter of the 20th century. Coordinated by Haynes, Michael Dorf, and others, the event raised money for 826 National, a non-profit organization established by authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida to encourage young students in creative writing.
I could throw out names that you may or may not know. Old-timers like X frontman John Doe, Blonde on Blonde collaborator Al Kooper, Jimmy LaFave, Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. Okay, I’ll admit it: I wasn’t there to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” — and the stuff played by these grizzled vets might’ve fell deaf on 22-year-old ears. But in front of a crowd that spanned at least three generations, I could grasp the significance of how one man influenced so many kinds of music, from John Doe’s punk rock to The Roots’ hip-hop.
Haynes’ film follows Dylan through the various stages of his career, with a different actor (Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere) playing a Dylan from a particular era. And mimicking the way Haynes shifts perspectives, the concert began with a performance of “When the Ship Comes In” by the young Marcus Carl Franklin (remember that name), then rolled forward to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (backed by Calexico) doing a sublime rendition of “Goin’ to Acapulco.” Fast-forward just a bit further to Joe Henry, coming off his new album, Civilians, acting almost as event maestro, rarely leaving the stage, whether as guitarist or singer on songs like “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).”
There was the occasional hiccup — an interesting yet unsettling performance by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroesand an obligatory emcee appearance by Ledger — but the night belongedto two bands: MMJ (pictured, with James at right) and The Roots. Fortradition’s sake, it was right to have Kooper, Terry Adams, and Mark Laneganon stage. In all honesty, though, I would’ve been content to listen toMMJ and ?uestlove play Dylan all night. Although they were mistakenlyintroduced as being from Lexington (they actually hail from Louisville,Ky.), MMJ and James connected on a version of “Tonight I’ll Be StayingHere With You” that nicely showcased James’ uncanny reverb. With afresh haircut, James didn’t look his normal shaggy self, but his voiceechoed through the Beacon like he wanted Dylan to hear him, wherever hewas.
The Roots? Well, The Roots literally brought the crowd to its feet.I remember rumblings of the group playing Bonnaroo this summer,including a chilling performance of “Master’s of War,” which is whatthey played as their set’s penultimate song. Capt. Kirk let loose onguitar, singing the first verse to the tune of the our national anthem,and channeling Jimi Hendrix throughout. ?uestlove, on the skins, wasworth every penny of the $150 ticket (which, in the spirit of fulldisclosure, I procured for free), and Tuba Gooding Jr. jumping into theaudience with his sousaphone made it hands down one of the topperformances I’ve seen this year. (You can see a YouTube video of themperforming the song at another venue here.)
To make this a true, interactive PopWatch experience, I’ll throw outa question I was pondering last night. What’s the best Dylan coveryou’ve ever heard? Or, better yet, what’s your favorite coveralbum/cover song? Because I’ve got MMJ on the mind, their re-imaginingof Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” keeps popping up in my mental list.